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Putin, NATO, Kennan and the Cold War

I was taken aback by a Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times, in which he dug up an interview with George F. Kennan, a great sage of Cold War politics and history.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

I have no sympathy for what Russia is doing in Ukraine, nor any interest in defending the moves by Vladimir Putin that have led to the precipice of war.

But I was taken aback by the most recent Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times, in which he dug up an interview with George F. Kennan, a great sage of Cold War politics and history, sometimes (including in Friedman’s column) called “the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union.”

Kennan died 17 years ago. I can’t say whether Friedman found this in notebook or, more likely, wrote about it at the time. But in 1998, young Friedman asked old Kennan (then-94) what he thought about the expansion of NATO to include as members the recently ex-communist nations of central and eastern Europe getting every closer to the borders of Russia.

Kennan replied: “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

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“We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill-informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

“Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”

Again, I’m not endorsing Kennan’s view that it was a mistake to expand NATO (the expansion was just getting started at the time of the interview). Nor does it give me any sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s current moves, which have the world on the edge of war over Ukraine.

We can’t go back and see what happens differently. I’m happy for the people of the various former Soviet-bloc nations whose lives have become freer and more prosperous. Or, perhaps, stop the expansion when it reached the actual borders of former Soviet territory.

As far as I know, Ukrainians are not saying they wish they were still allied with Russia. And I know I am rooting for them at the moment to avoid a terrible war. It just seems like the right time to read what Kennan said would happen and perhaps wonder what might have been done differently. I don’t claim to know.

The full Friedman column can be accessed here.